He's one of Australia's most acclaimed architects, whose buildings have been lauded for their imagination and connection to landscape, but Peter Stutchbury says he's worried about the path Australia is heading down.

In an incredible talk at TEDx Sydney, he drew gasps from thousands in the audience as he pondered what had happened to our imagination as a nation and where it all went wrong.

"We used to be creative," the architect, who has more than 50 Australian Institute of Architects awards under his belt — told a sold-out crowd at Sydney's ICC.

"What's happened to our creativity? Where's it gone? What's it being dulled by?"


However, the point didn't really hit home until he shared a couple of pictures that drew bursts of laughter from the crowd.

"I went to look for a car the other day, and I became extremely confused," he said before a stunning slide flashed up on the screen.

It showed four different types of cars from 1960 compared with four from today, and the difference in creativity and choice from the two eras is astounding.

Peter Stutchbury asked: 'What's happened to our creativity?' Photo / Supplied
Peter Stutchbury asked: 'What's happened to our creativity?' Photo / Supplied

"I remember my father coming home from work with books of cars, it was a wonderful event," he said.

He then showed an evolution of Australia's buildings from the 1800s through to the present — pointing out the architectural style of older Australian buildings is very similar to buildings in England, and a swanky modern house on Sydney's wealthy North Shore looks almost identical to a new home in Kyoto in Japan.

One of the bottom homes is one on Sydney's north shore, the other is in Kyoto, Japan. Photo / Supplied
One of the bottom homes is one on Sydney's north shore, the other is in Kyoto, Japan. Photo / Supplied

To describe how he found his own creativity, Stutchbury told the audience about his journey into the "origins of thinking".

He said when he was fresh out of architecture school, he heard stories that sparked his imagination from his uncle who was stationed as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

He took it upon himself to travel there and decided to help his relative design and build a church in the nation's Southern Highlands.


Living among the Kaluli indigenous people, he documented 45 of their traditional "longhouses" in just under two years.

"Although I didn't know it, what I was searching for was the origin of thinking," he said. "These people were completely untouched. I was the second white person in two villages."

He then drew comparisons to what he found there with the imagination, understanding of land and culture of Australia's indigenous people.

He said when Europeans first landed in Australia, there were over 300 nations established with their own countries, along with 300 "incredibly sophisticated" language groups.

"There were songlines and connections between country that developed relationships, understanding and respect," he said. "There were also patterns of landscape that indicated why these countries were set up in terms of sustainability.

"When we arrived, we didn't really pay attention to those patterns. We subdivided the land in a way that was disrespectful, and today we're mining it and sending boatloads of dirt overseas without valuating at all.

"That's what's got us through the great financial crisis."

However, he argued this ignorance of Aboriginal wisdom shows how Australians lost their connection with the environment, right down to the way they divide up the seasons.

"I've always wondered why we have four seasons, I don't get that," he said. "I don't see leaves falling off the trees. I don't see a lot of snow everywhere.

"The Aboriginal people had anything from four to 11 seasons depending on where they were in the country."

Sydney's first people, for example, had six seasons, starting with Burran, the hot and dry season between January and March, and Parra'dowee, the warm and wet season between November and December.

The D'harawal calendar devised by Sydney's first people has six seasons. Photo / Supplied
The D'harawal calendar devised by Sydney's first people has six seasons. Photo / Supplied

"Those seasons relate to animals moving though the country," Mr Stutchbury said. "They relate to flora that's flowering at a particular time. They relate to food you can and can't eat. They relate to weather patterns.

"And it seems to me that, somewhere along the line, we've missed the boat."

He said this disconnect worried him and Australia had become a nation of sheep that blindly follow one another.

"I'm worried that we follow each other," he said. "I'm worried that we follow a leader who may not be a good leader. I'm worried that we do things that maybe aren't relevant to today's world.

"I've moved a lot of sheep in my time, but if you put a mob of sheep into a paddock, they'll walk into the wind, and they might walk straight past a water source. We need to be particularly careful at this time in our lives."

He said the two biggest resources to guarantee Australia's prosperous future were not coal or iron ore but food and water.

Hitting out at the mass native fish deaths at Menindee in NSW's far west, he asked, "What were we doing? What were we thinking?"

Mr Stutchbury has raked in numerous awards for his designs. Photo / Supplied
Mr Stutchbury has raked in numerous awards for his designs. Photo / Supplied

He said the only two industries going backwards in Australia were agriculture and the arts, and it was time we started thinking about "generations ahead and generations behind".

"Wisdom comes from the refinement of knowledge, and the Aboriginal people are incredibly good at that," he said.

"That is their philosophy that they are just here in this world to refine the knowledge from their elders down to the younger people.

"Computers don't refine knowledge. They have information, and they're really good at that. But I get no emotion out of a computer, and I get no mistakes, and I get no advice."

Finally, he explained why wisdom is important in refuelling our creativity and our sense of identity, saying it is a fundamental part of his field of expertise, architecture.

"The most important thing, I think, about architecture is the mark you make on the landscape or that you don't make in the landscape," he said.

"The other thing is how the building might nurture you. How it might work with your soul or give you the ability to read your soul or understand your soul.

"It's the most fundamental part of architecture — connection to landscape because the landscape is our history."